Day: September 13, 2012

Inside the Bubble, Round II

Richard Grenell was pushed out as Mitt Romney’s national-security spokesman. In The Daily Beast, he attempts to defend his former boss.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton got it right. The Middle East desk at the State Department got it right, too. And so did Mitt Romney. All three correctly rejected the initial Cairo Embassy statement on the developing violence in Egypt and Libya as weak and inappropriate. And yet Romney was the only one to become the focus of media ire for it.

Again with “the media.” That horrible, terrible, no-good lamestream liberal media that also appeared in Erik Erikson’s evasive blame-the-messenger defense of Romney. And just how palpable is their double standard? Here’s Mitt Romney’s statement:

“I’m outraged by the attacks on American diplomatic missions in Libya and Egypt and by the death of an American consulate worker in Benghazi,” Romney said in the statement. “It’s disgraceful that the Obama Administration’s first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks.”

Here’s Secretary Clinton’s:

I condemn in the strongest terms the attack on our mission in Benghazi today. As we work to secure our personnel and facilities, we have confirmed that one of our State Department officers was killed. We are heartbroken by this terrible loss. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and those who have suffered in this attack. 

This evening, I called Libyan President Magariaf to coordinate additional support to protect Americans in Libya. President Magariaf expressed his condemnation and condolences and pledged his government’s full cooperation. 

Some have sought to justify this vicious behavior as a response to inflammatory material posted on the Internet. The United States deplores any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. Our commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation. But let me be clear: There is never any justification for violent acts of this kind. 

In light of the events of today, the United States government is working with partner countries around the world to protect our personnel, our missions, and American citizens worldwide.

As you can see, they are identical. Both characterize the US embassy statement as “sympathizing” with  the attackers. Both characterize that statement as the official position of the Obama Administration.

Okay, maybe Grenell’s talking about the actual remarks that disowned the US embassy statement. Like President Obama’s…. Right. He didn’t actually do so in his official remarks. Well, what about his 60 minutes remarks?

In an effort to cool the situation down, it didn’t come from me, it didn’t come from Secretary Clinton. It came from people on the ground who are potentially in danger,” Obama said. “And my tendency is to cut folks a little bit of slack when they’re in that circumstance, rather than try to question their judgment from the comfort of a campaign office.

Okay. So maybe Grenell is referring to reports that numerous people inside the Executive Branch were angry about the statement, e.g.,

“People at the highest levels both at the State Department and at the White House were not happy with the way the statement went down. There was a lot of anger both about the process and the content,” the official said. “Frankly, people here did not understand it. The statement was just tone deaf. It didn’t provide adequate balance. We thought the references to the 9/11 attacks were inappropriate, and we strongly advised against the kind of language that talked about ‘continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims.'”

You see, exactly the same thing as claiming that theObama Administration’s first response was not to condemn the attacks…” but to “sympathize with those who waged the attacks.”

But what else would you expect, argues Grenell, from the aforementioned liberal media?

The mainstream media has so far failed to ask persistent and tough questions of the State Department or the White House. In fact, NPR’s Romney campaign correspondent, Ari Shapiro, and CBS News’ Romney campaign correspondent, Jan Crawford, were caught on tape minutes before Romney’s press conference conspiring to trap him. Why had reporters like Shapiro and Crawford not tried to get the real story? Why were they following the Obama campaign’s playbook?

Evidence? You want evidence of this fiendish trap? Why here it is:

Off camera, you can hear CBS’s Crawford strategizing:

JAN CRAWFORD: That’s the question….Yeah that’s the question. I would just say do you regret your question.
ARI SHAPIRO, NPR: Your question? Your statement?
CRAWFORD: I mean your statement. Not even your tone, because then he can go off on –
SHAPIRO: And then if he does, I think we can just follow up and say ‘but this morning your answer is continuing to sound’ –

Then the feed is cut off. Crawford later added, “No matter who he calls on, we’re covered on the one question.” A man who is not Shapiro states, “Do you stand by your statement or regret your statement?”

Even Tim Graham at Newsbusters admits that there’s nothing really wrong with reporters collaborating to make sure that Romney answers a specific question. He (correctly) suggests that it would have been more appropriate to focus on substantive policy — what Romney would do diff… differ… different… look, I’m sorry, but….

… frack yes, it would be AWESOME if the media made Romney provide detailed policy ALTERNATIVES. I mean, have you seen the Mitt Romney official campaign site? The Iran policy is basically the same as the current policy. Seriously. Except that he “reserves” the right to go back to the inferior “third site” BMD option. The Middle East proposal is to create a we-won’t-call-it-a-Czar-Czar for the region — and it isn’t a Czar because it will have authorities that strike conservatives as even more extra-constitutional than what they’ve been after Obama for! Okay. Look, I know it isn’t fair to pick on campaign sites, but this is a candidate who believes specifics are for ordinary working people… 

Anyway, what was I writing? Graham’s fallback argument is that there’s nothing per se wrong with this coordination except that the liberal media are biased and liberal and stuff… because Clinton.

Been an interesting day. At least Obama’s “this is crazy, but Egypt an ally? Call it, maybe?“* line will introduce some new wrinkles into the narrative.

*I sure hope this is the kind of mixed-message signaling designed to “warn” another regime in an ambiguous way. How boring if it just turns out to be a “gaffe.” 

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On the “Reality of Nations”

This is a guest post by Peter S. Henne. Peter is a doctoral candidate at Georgetown University. He formerly worked as a national security consultant. His research focuses on terrorism and religious conflict; he has also written on the role of faith in US foreign policy. During 2012-2013 he will be a fellow at the Miller Center at the University of Virginia

Are some nations more real than others? Does it matter? Wednesday on MSNBC’s ‘Morning Joe,” Joe Klein was a guest, discussing the current showdown over Iran’s nuclear program. Klein is a smart and reasonable man, and most of what he said made sense. But he made a few almost throw-away comments about ‘real’ versus ‘fake’ nations thatóin my mind at leastówere a bit disturbing.

The segment is available here, and the two comments are 8:35 and 9:40 (counting down on the MSNBC video player). In explaining why we shouldn’t attack Iran over its nuclear weapons, he said it is a ‘real’ country unlike many others in the region, with a strong sense of identity and history. When the conversation turned to Pakistan, he contrasted it with the real-ness of Iran in explaining why its possession of nuclear weapons is more concerning than Iran’s.

Again, I don’t necessarily disagree. The people of Iran are not rabid America-haters, and its leadersówhile ideologically-drivenóare not crazy. Moreover, Iran has a long and proud history, going back to the Persian Empire. Likewise, Pakistan has had a difficult history due to its multiethnic composition and often-poor leadership, as I’ve noted before. What got me was the real-versus-fake distinction. To be fair, he meant that Iran existed as a political entity before the modern era, while Pakistan was formed through post-colonial demarcation and the efforts of political figures like Muhammad Ali Jinnah after World War II. But the extension of this argument is that countries with a pre-modern existence will likely be more stable and friendly to the United States, while those of more recent genesis will not.

Whether or not Klein meant it, he interjected himself into a long-running debate over the origin of nations. The classic view of nations as eternally-existing entities is, while prevalent in popular discussions, not in line with contemporary scholarship. Gellner, Anderson, Kedourie and others demonstrated how nations emerged from various processes of modernity, such as industrialization, the spread of vernacular languages or political manipulation by elites. In Gellner’s words, many nations do not have a navel; they emerged fully-formed from modernity, not pre-modern social groups. Of course, many disagree with this, most prominently Anthony Smith, who argues that pre-modern ‘ethnies’ set the stage for modern nationalism. But both sides agree that whether a contemporary nation arose from pre-modern social groups or the disruptive processes of modernity, once established none are any more ‘real’ than others; nations are based on the intersubjective beliefs of their members, not objective characteristics like land or genetics.

Just to recap: Klein’s implication was that some nations are ‘real’ by virtue of pre-modern existence, and others are not as they emerged more recently. The latter group is more likely to experience instability and violence. In discussion of political reform in the Middle East, or plans to resolve the post-invasion chaos of Iraq, the supposed ‘fake-ness’ of countries in the region factored into assessments of what will happen and what to do about conflicts there. If the countries are ‘fake,’ then can a stable political system ever arise? Should we just help create new countries that are somehow less ‘fake?’ It’s actually an interesting corollary of the ‘ancient hatreds’ argument; some groups have been fighting for thousands of years, and try as we might to resolve their conflicts with shiny democratic institutions, there’s nothing we can do. In this case, the argument is: if some nations were never meant to be, then we can never really expect them to develop into stable democracies.

Now, again, to be fair, Klein made these comments on a morning show. He’s a smart guy, but was giving a blurb on TV, not an academic lecture. And as an academic, I admit I share academia’s often-irrational irritation with pundits who simplify scholarly debates. But Klein’s attitude, which I’m sure is shared by others in the punditocracy and policy community, is potentially dangerous. Multi-ethnic states born of modernity can work out well, like the United States. States with ancient histories can be disruptive internationally, like Iran. And the fact that Pakistan is less than a hundred years old doesn’t mean ‘real’ Pakistanis don’t exist.

I guess it’s a little much to expect pundits to peruse Imagined Communities before appearing on the morning talk shows, but it would be nice.

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How did he screw this up so badly?

I don’t really want to pile on, but the question for me is: how does a major presidential candidate in the 21st century (and a guy who has been running for office now for seven straight years) screw this up so badly?

As a resident of Massachusetts, I watched Romney as governor, he wasn’t a disaster and I don’t think he ever displayed the level of incompetence that we’ve seen recently. So what’s going on?

I’ve been pondering this with various Massachusetts political analysts/friends over the past day, here’s what I see:

As governor, Romney’s staff was small and most decisions were made within a tight-knit group of advisers. He governed a state in which the Democrats held both houses of the legislature with overwhelming, veto-proof, majorities. Given the constraints, he took risks, often made quick judgments, and went straight to the cameras in an effort to get out ahead of slower, entrenched Democratic Party leadership. He also vetoed more than 800 bills — almost all of which were overturned.

He’s now been running for office for nearly seven straight years and he’s developed a campaign organization, and strategy that is similar to his governor’s staff with its emphasis on “efficiency,” streamlined decisionmaking, and quick response. He relies heavily on a small group of core political (not policy) advisors and his world is about rapid reaction, getting out in the lead, and staying ahead in instantaneous news cycles. Nuance and complexity don’t fit. Wonky candidates are seen as indecisive — Al Gore, John Kerry, and Michael Dukakis — and they lose. Every talking point is carefully crafted to resonate in the politico echo-chamber. Romney disdains Obama and the complexity of Obama’s policy because he’s spent the past four years creating fictions and simple caricatures.

But there are risks to this style of campaign — the message lacks depth and the process lacks checks.

This hasn’t been a problem on most domestic issues where Romney has experience and a certain comfort zone — he can pivot and fill in substantive gaps on policy when confronted by journalists or potential voters on the campaign trail. But the risks are exposed on foreign policy where he has no real experience to ground or contextualize the talking points and the simple caricatures he’s constructed. He still doesn’t have a weighty foreign policy expert traveling with him on a daily bais who can provide a check on the substantive side. His initial statement on the Libya events and the doubling down on that statement appear to have come without consultation with a wider group of foreign policy thinkers within the party. He and his campaign didn’t appear to contemplate that there might be uncertainty about the fast moving events. They didn’t appear to comprehend the complexity of the situation. They didn’t appear to understand the potential reaction to their rapid political response to a tragedy.

I don’t think Romney’s glaring mistake here was that he shot from the hip. I think it goes deeper. Here’s a guy (and a campaign) who is clearly thin on national security and foreign policy; a guy who has made a number of mistakes in the past two months — the fiasco of his highly touted foreign tour, the bizarre neglect of any mention of veterans or the war in Afghanistan in his acceptance speech, and now this. Yet, neither Romney nor his inner circle seem to have acknowledged their weakness — even to themselves. This is what I find most troubling — the inability to self-reflect, to acknowledge a mistake (even if the acknowledgment is purely internal) and to fix a glaring weakness. It’s a failure of the candidate, it’s a failure of his inner circle, it’s a failure of the campaign’s organizational structure, and it’s all too close to George W. Bush for my taste.

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All Mitt Romney Really Needed To Know He Never Learned In Kindergarten

This is actually a pretty good checklist.

I’m busy with other projects–dissertating, researching, and watching Breaking Bad, in ascending order–but I wanted to point out that the problem with Mitt Romney’s statement about the attacks on Americans in Libya and Egypt is not what it tells us about foreign policy. We know very little about Romney’s foreign policy views, and it is possible that Romney himself hasn’t thought deeply about the it. (Indeed, my gut feeling informed intuition  has long been that most American presidents simply don’t have well-informed views on things like military intervention before they take office.)

The problem with Romney’s statement is that it was a poorly-chosen, poorly-timed message.

For all his presentation as a cautious businessman, Romney has consistently shown that he has little idea how to sell himself in person. True, he has good instincts about how to market himself–stay away from the media, keep the campaign largely on message, don’t worry about temporary roadblocks like Herman Cain–but that is entirely different from being a good spokesman on his own behalf.

Yet unlike a native politician, such as Bill Clinton, John F. Kennedy, or whoever is running for sheriff in your county this year, Romney lacks the finely honed filter that prevents him from unintentionally saying really dumb stuff.


The “two Cadillacs” gaffe, the “I like firing people” quote, that some-of-my-best-friends-are-NASCAR-owners slip–they are all qualitatively different from Obama’s worst verbal errors (“you didn’t build that” and, I guess, the “57 states” things), which are the products of fatigue and temporarily verbal confusion. By contrast, Romney’s slips have  comported with what many people (including, lest we forget, a substantial majority of Republican primary voters) thought he is: a distant plutocrat who’s only honest when he isn’t paying attention.

The most recent statement, which pretty blatantly politicized a moment of national grief, added a newer, sinister dimension to this image. Instead of Romney-as-clueless-Richie-Rich, we now have Mitt-the-Machiavelli, whose only thought is how the deaths of dedicated public servants affect his campaign. That this was not a slip of the tongue but the product of the campaign’s top strategists and, allegedly, the candidate himself speaks volumes about how the candidate sees himself. But it says nothing about how he sees the United States and its role abroad.

Late Update: I wanted to clarify the post’s relationship to its title. Why is Romney’s statement such a problem? It’s not that it’s part of a well-thought-out philosophy of “not apologizing” (both because the timing was wrong to release that critique, and because the philosophy is not well-thought out), as David Weigel at Slate implies. Rather, it’s that it shows that Romney may actually lack the kind of empathy that we normally presume that presidential candidates have. To be blunt, Romney may in fact be less empathetic than Nixon, whose career (as Rick Perlstein and others have argued) was in part driven by resentment at the slights, real and perceived, that the Establishment committed against the ordinary striver. This may not, in some grand philosophical sense, disqualify one from the presidency, but it normally disqualifies you from being a presidential candidate.

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Inside the Bubble

Erik Erikson’s full-throated attack on the US media and Obama is getting bounced around the right-wing twitter-verse today.  For those of us who aren’t part of that universe, it provides an interesting glimpse inside the bubble.

It begins thus:

Yesterday, as the American consulate in Libya was smoking and the rioters were returning in Egypt, the President of the United States flew off to Las Vegas for a fundraiser while his spokesman was telling the American press corps that yesterday wasn’t really a normal political day. Had it been George W. Bush, the media would, right now, be marching on the White House with pitch forks and torches.

Should Obama have suspended his campaign on September 12th? In the absence of any major foreign-policy decisions, I don’t really understand the argument here. And I don’t see how anyone who lived through the Bush presidency can say, with a straight face, that “the media would have been marching on the White House with pitch forks and torches” under similar circumstances.

He continues:

I get that Chuck Todd is a former Democrat hill staffer. I get that the Politico is riddled with Democrats, some former activists and a former staffer for Debbie Wasserman Schultz. I get that Michael Scherer from Time magazine is a left wing reporter for Mother Jones and Salon.com turned respectable, “objective” journalist. I get that Ben Smith, leading up Buzz Feed, is a leftwing journalist paraded about as if he is some sort of objective reporter at a trendy site full of cat photos. What I really get is that the American media runs with a herd mentality, leans left, and yesterday collectively fell over their group think as they leaned so far left to focus on Mitt Romney and not President Obama. Yesterday, the American media beclowned itself in ways I didn’t really even think was possible, even knowing how in the tank for Barack Obama they are.

Of course, it wasn’t just “the media” that was shocked and appalled by Romney’s disingenuous opportunism.

Yesterday, we learned that there were no Marines protecting our Ambassador to Libya despite State Department warnings about violence and kidnappings in the Benghazi. We already knew Al Qaeda was coming on strong there. But we relied on locals for support and now we know the locals betrayed us as they have in the past in Afghanistan and Iraq too. 

But the media wanted to focus on Mitt Romney.

Speaking of “the media,” both of these links go to posts at Breitbart.com. Both of those posts are riffs on…. wait for it…. mainstream media reporting. Anyway, according to google news there were 71,500 English-language stories that mentioned “Egypt OR Libya” and “Embassy OR Consulate.” Of those, 47,800 did not include the word “Romney.” A quick browse suggests that the ~60% of the stories mentioning Romney simply included a reference to his campaign statement condemning the attacks and the Obama Administration. Note that the Romney campaign issued its condemnations with the aim of getting them included in stories about the attacks.

Is 60% too much of a focus on Romney? That’s a subjective judgment. I tend to think that the answer is “yes,” but I’m also convinced that if the media had ignored Romney’s campaign statements then Republicans would be crying foul. No, what Erikson is actually upset about — and this is clear from his rundown of biased reporters — is that the political media focused on Romney.

Let’s repeat that again: the political media focused on Romney. Chuck Todd is not a Middle East reporter. Politico’s main goal is to call who “won the morning” in American politics. Ben Smith’s gig at buzzfeed? Definitely not “foreign correspondent.” These people were doing their jobs. Now, you and I may not think much of the inordinate attention that they get. I’d prefer that we focused more on foreign affairs qua foreign affairs. But I suspect Erikson wouldn’t have been at all upset if these same people had been lambasting Obama for his “poor handling” of attacks. Scratch that: I’m almost certain he’d been dancing with glee.

Why am I certain? Because his next line is:

Night before last, the President condemned Mitt Romney in harsher tones than he condemned the rioters. It took him until sun up yesterday to condemn them.

But the media wanted to focus on Mitt Romney.

And, of course, the link is to Breitbart (linking to Talking Points Memo). The TPM story says no such thing. It covers Secretary of State Clinton, who is, I should remind readers, speaking on behalf of the US government, condemning the attacks. Here’s Clinton:

I condemn in the strongest terms the attack on our mission in Benghazi today. As we work to secure our personnel and facilities, we have confirmed that one of our State Department officers was killed. We are heartbroken by this terrible loss. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and those who have suffered in this attack. 

This evening, I called Libyan President Magariaf to coordinate additional support to protect Americans in Libya. President Magariaf expressed his condemnation and condolences and pledged his government’s full cooperation. 

Some have sought to justify this vicious behavior as a response to inflammatory material posted on the Internet. The United States deplores any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. Our commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation. But let me be clear: There is never any justification for violent acts of this kind. 

In light of the events of today, the United States government is working with partner countries around the world to protect our personnel, our missions, and American citizens worldwide.”

 It also reports the following:

Mitt Romney seized on the embassy attacks as an opportunity to condemn Obama’s “disgraceful” handling of the situation in a statement late Tuesday. Despite the embassy’s assertion that its statement was drafted before protests began, Romney slammed the White House for turning to apologies as the “first response” to violence. 

“I’m outraged by the attacks on American diplomatic missions in Libya and Egypt and by the death of an American consulate worker in Benghazi,” he said. “It’s disgraceful that the Obama administration’s first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks.” 

That didn’t sit well with the Obama campaign, who accused Romney of exploiting the crisis for electoral gain. 

“We are shocked that, at a time when the United States of America is confronting the tragic death of one of our diplomatic officers in Libya, Governor Romney would choose to launch a political attack,” Obama’s campaign press secretary Ben LaBolt said in a statement.

Are the tones used by the Obama campaign harsher than those used by Secretary Clinton? You can judge for yourself. The important point, however, is this: “Obama campaign,” “President Obama,” and “Secretary of State Clinton” are not the same things. Indeed, the idea that there’s something wrong with the Obama campaign responding to an attack by the Romney campaign prior to the President’s own official statement is rather bizarre.

Obama’s official statement, which came yesterday, carried no mention of Mitt Romney. Obama’s comment on his rival’s statements was, in fact, rather terse.

Back to Erikson:

Yesterday, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a man who swore an oath to defend the Constitution of the United States of America, called an American civilian to ask him to stop exercising his first amendment rights. 

But the media wanted to focus on Mitt Romney.

I’m well into tl;dr territory, so I’ll just point out that unless Dempsey threatened Jones, there’s nothing unusual about what he did — nor anything unconstitutional.

We also now know that the President, close to 60% of the time, has opted for printed intelligence briefings, which this White House thinks are as useful as an intelligence officer in the room who the President can probe, prod, challenge, and question. 

But the media wanted to focus on Mitt Romney.

Written briefings convey information much more quickly than verbal ones. I’m also sure that if the President wants to “probe, prod, challenge, and question” intelligence reports, he has ways of doing this that don’t involve having a briefer in the room. Those ways might even be more effective, as briefers will never be experts on every aspect of intelligence in the PDB.

And in focusing on Mitt Romney, finally, of all the places, Slate and Dave Weigel finally point out that Mitt Romney’s gaffe was no gaffe, it was a consistent view of foreign policy foreign to the ears of the political press. He, I, and many others really do think Barack Obama is an apologist. We really do think his speech to Cairo after his entrance to the White House was part of a world apology tour. And we sure as hell think his actions in the past year to foster the Arab Spring were the actions of a naive fool.

But then the media has been playing the naive fool for him.

Uh. Ok. Even if the term”gaffe” was a central part of the criticisms being leveled at Romney — and, of course it is not — I don’t think Weigel’s column means what Erikson wants it to mean.

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Thursday Morning Linkage

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